Just how much did birding grow in 2020?

New figures show 28% increase in Illinois, 16% increase nationally. Next up: making the most of the increased interest and doing more to protect birds.

The pandemic’s changed our lives in all sorts of ways. But one thing that’s blissfully unchanged: the identification and appreciation of birds. In fact, the pandemic’s led to more people looking for birds and recording their sightings.

According to new data provided by Cornell Lab of Ornithology, there were 240,646 checklists submitted on the online database eBird in Illinois through Nov. 30 versus 187,443 in all of 2019. That’s a 28 percent increase with an entire month of the year remaining. And Illinois is outpacing the rest of the United States. Nationally, it’s 7,541,199 checklists in 2020 and a 16% increase. Online checklists aren’t a perfect proxy to gauge interest in birding, but the numbers back up what’s been written in several places since the spring. Additionally, installations of the Merlin bird identification app have grown by 50 to 80 percent in recent months compared to previous years. And here is this piece from Chicago writer Dan Sinker, “who knew nothing about birds” before the lockdown.

More people interested in birds and more people watching birds are good things. Not to mention this recent study that connects the presence of birds with happiness. The challenge now is making the most of this trend and doing more to protect birds and expand their populations.

A Cornell Lab study from last year shared that there’s been a drop of nearly 30% in bird populations since 1970. The path to getting those birds back takes people—a massive level of public support for birds and large numbers of folks restoring habitat, making windows safer and keeping cats indoors, among other actions. The efforts to restore endangered populations—two nearby examples are the Great Lakes Piping Plover and Kirtland’s Warbler—take enormous levels of coordination among government, private enterprise and nonprofit organizations. All of those things take people—providing everything from financial support to educating elected officials to hands-on volunteering. Again, we need the support of many voices if we are to preserve even the smallest parcels of land.

For now, with so few bright spots this year, it’s time to look back on something positive—that the increased interest in birds might just be the start of a trend.

Bringing back the birds: Reduce lawn, plant natives and leave the leaves

Here’s a look at one solution the aforementioned Cornell study offers: Reducing lawn and planting natives. I spoke with Allison Sloan, Co-Lead of Natural Habitat Evanston, a program of Citizens’ Greener Evanston, who has written extensively on this topic. She describes grass lawns as “ecological dead zones” that emulate wealthy European estate owners. Manicured yards that hew to societal norms around lawns and landscaping are contributing to the problems facing bird and insect populations. Here’s what Allison shared with me:

“Most of us think of birds as eating seeds and berries, but in reality, 96 percent of terrestrial birds need insects at some point in their life, especially caterpillars to feed nestlings. Unfortunately, however, most lawns do not have enough insects and caterpillars to allow birds to successfully breed there because our culture has destroyed most of the native plants these insects need to eat.”

I reached out to Allison because I had some questions about what to do with leaves this fall. Raking and bagging leaves destroys potential habitat for insect eggs, larvae or cocoons in winter. That means one less food source that’s available to birds. Brown Thrashers, Dark-eyed Juncos, Eastern Towhees and Fox Sparrows are among the many species that forage in leaf litter. Here’s more from Allison:

“When we clean up leaf litter, especially if we blast it away with a leaf blower, we are destroying all of the life within—the cocoons of butterflies and moths, the roly polys, centipedes, and the eggs and larvae of fireflies and other bugs—and we are removing important bird habitat, as well as the organic matter needed to fertilize and insulate tree roots and to build healthy, insect-rich topsoil. We call it litter and throw it away as if it is garbage, but in fact it’s packed with life.”

Leaving the leaves combined with planting native trees, shrubs, forbs and grasses means much more in the way of insect life. Restoring a few Chicago-sized lots to native habitat may not seem like much, but if ever it could be done at scale, and societal attitudes toward yards would change, growth in bird populations presumably would follow.

Says Allison, “With 86% of land east of the Mississippi now privately owned and mostly being developed, farmed or landscaped with turf grass and exotic plants, it’s no wonder we have lost 3 billion birds in the last 50 years. That they are running out of food has to be one factor.”

The World of Monty and Rose

“The World of Monty and Rose” is a limited edition hand-drawn map by New World Cartography in Green Pond, S.C. This watercolor map is printed on heavy bond paper, and dimensions are 17.8” wide by 10” tall. Just 25 of these were printed and only a few remain. Order yours today and receive it in time for holiday gift giving. 

TWiB Notes

A Western Tanager joined the list of wandering species showing up in Channahon recently, appearing near the location of the state’s first Great Kiskadee…..Pine Grosbeaks are sort of the grail bird among the winter finches that may turn up in our area on occasion. A female grosbeak was identified this week in the pinery at Ogden Dunes, Ind., perhaps the closest the species has come to Chicago in 2020…..The Lake/Cook Audubon Chapter is looking for a bluebird monitor who will be responsible for eight new bluebird boxes on a new preserve that is being developed in Lake Forest. The boxes will be installed over the next few months, and monitoring will take place April-July. Send an email if you are interested…..The northeast winds this weekend provided a Black-legged Kittiwake at Gillson Park on Friday. All About Birds describes kittiwakes as “dainty gulls of the northern Ocean.” They make their way inland to the Great Lakes on occasion.

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